“Birds of Prey” Glitter Bombs and Drop Kicks Superhero Conventions

Oscar Kim Bauman, Living Arts Editor

“Birds of Prey,” also known as “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” or “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” is the latest offering from DC Films, and a lively palate-cleanser from many of its dour predecessors. Ostensibly a spinoff of 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” “Birds of Prey” follows the misadventures of the charismatically chaotic Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, in the aftermath of her breakup with the Joker, and delivers the brand of hard-hitting yet free-spirited action its predecessor failed to. 

The action of “Birds of Prey” centers around a simple quest. The flamboyant, sadistic mob boss Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask and played with scene-chewing glee by Ewan McGregor, wants a diamond. Not just any diamond, mind you, but one which contains the bank codes to access the fortune of the Bertinelli family, a rival group of mobsters killed on Sionis’s orders years prior. His only problem? The diamond has gone missing, stolen from his right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). 

Quickly, the young Cain finds herself engulfed in criminal machinations which draw in a range of characters from the Batman universe. Gotham Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is hot on Sionis’s tail, trying to find evidence of his criminal enterprise. Superpowered lounge singer Dinah Lance, also known as Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) works for Sionis, but becomes increasingly suspicious of his motives. Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the lone survivor of the massacre which killed her family, exacts bloody revenge as Huntress. Harley, no longer under Joker’s protection, also ends up in Sionis’s crosshairs. 

In its first act, “Birds of Prey” feels almost too chaotic for its own good, cutting back and forth in time, scenes sutured together by Harley’s fourth wall-breaking narration. Once all the players are introduced, and the plot kicks into gear, the film feels smoother in its narrative flow, but even in its most scattered moments, the lively tone keeps “Birds of Prey” in the audience’s good graces. 

As directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, “Birds of Prey” is a kinetic, largely joyful experience. Yan’s direction imbues Gotham City with a colorful yet grounded tone, shining and grimy at the same time. Hodson’s script allows all of the film’s ensemble to shine, as their contrasting personalities bounce off one another: Harley’s anarchic free-wheeling vibe, Renee’s no-nonsense frustration, Dinah’s good-natured morality, and Helena’s mix of anger and awkwardness.

 Of particular note are the film’s action scenes, where clear camera work and entertaining choreography make “Birds of Prey” a welcome change of pace from the frenetic cuts and CGI smog that defines so many action scenes in recent comic book movies. Chad Stahelski, director of the “John Wick” films, served as a second unit director on “Birds of Prey,” and that franchise’s influence is clearly seen throughout the film.

Also of note is the diversity on display in “Birds of Prey.” While it is not the first female-led feature in this modern era of comic book movies, previous entries like “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” focused their stories on a single powerful woman making her way in a male-dominated world. 

By contrast, the titular “Birds of Prey” are an all-female ensemble, diverse in age, race, sexuality, powers, and morality. But rather than have this be the focus, these identities are largely incidental to the film’s narrative, simply representing different demographics of people as they exist in reality, an attitude which may be credited to the pair behind the film: Hodson, who is Taiwanese-British, and Yan, who is Chinese-American and the first woman of color to direct a major comic book film.

Unfortunately, “Birds of Prey” has underperformed in its first weeks at the box office. This can be blamed on any number of factors, from a poor marketing campaign, to the negative association with the maligned “Suicide Squad,” as well as DC’s overall poor reputation. This association with earlier, worse comic book movies is a shame, because “Birds of Prey” bucks trends of its genre far more often than it follows them.

Anchored by great performances, laugh-out-loud comic beats, sharp action, and glorious glitter-grime production design, “Birds of Prey” is a fun ride that’s all its own. Unlike its DC predecessor, “Joker,” “Birds of Prey” is far from Oscar bait, but it is an all-around great time at the movies which I wholly recommend.